MAFRA, Portugal (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin drew a parallel on Friday between U.S. plans for a missile shield in Europe and the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, widely regarded as the closest the world came to nuclear war.
But the Kremlin leader said his personal friendship with U.S. President George W. Bush had helped to prevent the latest U.S. initiative from turning into a new global disaster.
“I would remind you how relations were developing in an analogous situation in the middle of the 1960s,” he told a news conference after the Russia-EU summit in the Portugal.
“Analogous actions by the Soviet Union when it deployed rockets on Cuba provoked the Cuban missile crisis,” said Putin. “For us, technologically, the situation is very similar. On our borders such threats to our country are being created.”
A decision by the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to send nuclear missiles to communist ally Cuba put the world on the brink of nuclear war in 1962. After days of dramatic negotiations, Khrushchev agreed to pull out the missiles.
Russia has been outraged by the U.S. decision to deploy a radar in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles in Poland to avert potential missile strikes from countries like Iran. It sees the plan as an outright threat to its security.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack strongly rejected Putin’s comparison between the U.S. missile shield proposal and the Cuban crisis.
“There are some very clear historical differences between our plans to deploy a defensive missile system designed to protect against launch of missiles from rogue states such as Iran, and the offensive nuclear capability of the missiles that were being installed in Cuba back in the 1960s,” McCormack said.
“They are not historically analogous in any way, shape or form,” he said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said: “I don’t know quite what to make of the strong remarks. Even within his comments ... (Putin) still acknowledged that we had made some positive proposals and put forward some interesting ideas.”
In a bid to ease Russian concerns, Washington said earlier this week it had offered to delay activation of parts of its missile shield in Europe if Russia cooperated on the project.
“I‘m still hopeful we can make progress ... and partner with the Russians. But the rhetoric sometimes is fairly troubling,” Gates said in a speech in Texas.
In a demonstration of potential consequences, a top Russian military commander said on Friday Moscow could resume the production of short and medium-range nuclear missiles, similar to those which threatened Western Europe in the mid-1980s.
“If there is a political decision to make such a class of missile, then it is obvious that they will be made in Russia in the near future because we have everything we need,” Colonel-General Nikolai Solovtsov said in Moscow.
In an attempt to stop the U.S. plan, Putin has promised to allow Washington use a radar it rents in Azerbaijan, built in the Soviet days to monitor the Indian Ocean zone, or a new radar with even wider range located in southern Russia.
He has also proposed setting up a joint missile defense system, which would include European countries.
Washington has made clear it was ready to cooperate with Russia, but said the Russian offer was an addition rather than a replacement for its missile shield plan.
“Unfortunately we haven’t received replies to our proposals,” Putin said.
He said, however, the row over the U.S. missile shield plans had no chance of turning into a major global crisis.
”Thank God, we do not have any Cuban missile crisis now and this is above all because of the fundamental way relations between Russia and the United States and Europe have changed.
“Not in the least our personal relations with President Bush, the relations of trust, help to smooth such problems. I have a full right to describe him as my personal friend as he calls me his friend.”
Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge in Moscow and Sue Pleming in Washington